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Full text of "Child wages in the cotton mills : our modern feudalism"

Pamphlet No. 199, 1913. (5c. postpaid) 



National (tttyilb Habor Qtomtmtfr* 

INCORPORATED 

105 East 22d Street 
New York City 



CHILD WAGES IN THE COTTON 

MILLS: OUR MODERN 

FEUDALISM 



A. J. McKELWAY, Washington, D. C. 
Southern Secretary, National Child Labor Committee 



(Reprinted from the CHILD -LABOR BULLETIN, Vol. II, No. 1, May, 1913, containing 
the addresses and proceedings of the Ninth National Conference on" Child Labor, held at Jack- 
sonville, Fla., March 13-17, 1913, under the auspices of the National Child Labor Committee.) 

t 



CHILD WAGES IN THE COTTON MILLS : OUR MODERN 

FEUDALISM. 



A. J. McKelway, Washington, D. C, 
Southern Secretary, National Child Labor Committee. 



"We work in his mill. We live in his houses. Our children go 
to his school. And on Sunday we go to hear his preacher." This 
is the pathetic plaint of the cotton mill workers of North Carolina, 
spoken more than once to our agent in North Carolina. It is re- 
freshing to observe that at least the system of feudalism is recognized 
by the workers themselves. The expression we have quoted might 
be amplified with regard to some twenty or twenty-five mills in the 
South that are invariably advertised for their betterment work, with 
a significant silence as to the 700 other cotton mills that merely 
bask in the reflected glory of the "show mills." "We also go to his 
Y. M. C. A. when he has built one. We spend our leisure time, 
after the eleven-hour day, those of us who can read, in his reading 
room. Our children play in his streets. Our cow sleeps in his 
stable. We are sent to his store to buy our goods. When we are 
sick, or hurt in the mill, we go to his hospital. We are arrested 
by his constable, and tried by his magistrate. And when we die we 
are buried in his cemetery." 

I have been assigned the discussion of two apparently unrelated 
subjects: Child Wages in the Cotton Mill, and Our Modern Feudal- 
ism. As a matter of fact, the two themes are as closely related as 
cause and effect, as I shall undertake to prove. 

The children of the cotton mills whom we undertake to bring 
within the operation of the law prohibiting their employment are the 
children under fourteen years of age. They are employed mainly 
in the spinning rooms, and are principally spinners, doffers, band 
boys and sweepers. Children under fourteen have been found in 
other operations of the cotton mills, girl spinners sometimes gradu- 
ating into weavers and boys occasionally found at the warping ma- 
chine. The doffer boys work intermittently and much has been 
made of the fact that when they have replaced the empty spools 

[2] 






Child Wages in Cotton Mills 3 

with full ones, they can go out into the mill yard and play marbles. 
Nothing is said of the eleven-hour day, preventing all attendance at 
school by day, and making the night school oftentimes an added 
cruelty to tired and sleepy children. And nothing is ever said of the 
girl spinners who do not work intermittently but must ever be on 
the alert to watch the spinning frames and tie the broken threadj/^ 

/"Mr. R. M. Miller, Jr., of Charlotte, N. C, who recently ap- \l^\ 
peared before the Ways and Means Committee of the House of 
Representatives to plead for protection against the competition of 
the "pauper labor of Europe" in the manufacture of cotton goods, 
once went into print to say, in opposition to a child labor bill which 
proposed the raising of the age-limit for girls only, from twelve to 
fourteen years of age, that 75 per cent_of the spinners of North 
Carolina were fourteen years old or under! It is one of the tradi- 
tions of the cotton mill in the South, that spinning is work for 
girls, not for boys or women. And that tradition of the industry 
is directly in the face of all the teachings of medical science, as to 
the necessity for the especial care and protection of young girls at 
that period of life. Think of your own girls, fathers and mothers, 
standing at a spinning frame for eleven hours a day, or some- 
times a night! Of 295 spinners found under 12 in Southern mills, 
246 were girls. 

Children's Wages High. 

Now the wages which these children get, the doffers and spin- 
ners, are not low, considering the fact that it is child's work. The 
wages are comparatively high, considering the ages of the children. 
The Federal Bureau of Labor found in 1908-9, in the Southern mills 
that were investigated, the agents being required to prove the ages 
of the children, 17 children 7 years of age, 48 of eight years, 107 
of nine, 283 of ten and 494 of eleven years of age. There is not 
much remunerative work that children from seven to eleven years 
can do in the South, not very much that children 12 to 14 years 
can do. 

In a representative South Carolina cotton mill, 

doffers of 12 years were paid $3.54 per week 

doffers of 13 years were paid 3.92 per week 

doffers of 14 years were paid 5.04 per week 

doffers of 15 years were paid 4.75 per week 



4 Child Wages in Cotton Mills 

and dofTers of 20 years and over were paid $2.52 per week, while 
the earnings of the spinners in 151 Southern mills were $4.54 a week 
and scrubbers and sweepers $2.96 a week. These are actual wages 
paid, not the wages computed for full time, which was an average 
of 62.7 hours per week. 

Adult Wages Lozv. 

But here is the impressive thing about the comparative wage 
of children and adults per week: 251 children under 12 years of age 
earned less than $2 per week and 731 children of twelve and thirteen 
earned less than $2 per week. But there were 1,700 workers from 
14 to 20 years of age who earned less than $2 per week. And 1,085 
operatives twenty-one years of age and over who earned less than 
$2 a week. There were more girls from 18 to 20 years of age earn- 
ing less than $2 per week than there were of girls from 14 to 15 
earning less than $2. There were 1,733 children under 16 who made 
from two to three dollars a week and there was almost an equal 
number, 1,712 workers, sixteen years and over, who earned the same 
wages. Children under 16 earning from three to four dollars a 
week numbered 2,426, and those from 16 to 21 and over earning 
from three to four dollars a week numbered 2,597. 

Out of 32,409 workers in the cotton mills, whose actual wages 
per week were copied from the pay rolls, only 1,444 earned from 
$8.00 to $9.00 a week, and one of these was a boy and one a gir! 
under 12 years of age. And when we come to the $12 limit, only 
54 women out of 17,066 earned from $11 to $12 a week, and one 
of these was a girl under 16 years of age, while 241 men out of 
14,000 reached that wage and one of these was a boy under 16. 

I know of no employment in the South for girls under 14 that 
pays so well as work in the cotton mill, and only one employment 
for boys, the demoralizing messenger service which is vile for the 
night shift and bad for the day shift from association with the boys 
who work at night. And their wages are increased by the tips they get 
for serving the denizens of the underworld. But the facts driven 
home by these unquestioned figures is that the wages of children 
are high as compared with the wages of the adult workers. The 
same general result is shown, though with higher ages for children 
and a slightly higher scale of wages, for the New England mills. 



Child Wages in Cotton Mills 5 

Here is the temptation which the cotton mill in its long child- 
enslaving history, in Old England, in New England, in Pennsylvania 
and the South has set in the way of ignorant, indifferent or poverty- 
stricken parents. And who are mainly responsible for this — the 
employers, enlightened and educated men, able to read and to ap- 
preciate the full consequences of the child-labor system to the chil- 
dren, to the country and to democracy itself? Or the parent who 
supplies the demand which the cotton manufacturer creates ? Whom 
does the enlightened conscience of mankind hold responsible for 
the introduction of African slavery into America and the British 
possessions to-day? The African chief who sold his people, already 
slaves to his lordly will, or the British or New England slave- 
trader who bought them and transported them? 

And now perhaps we begin to see the relation between the 
comparatively high wages that the children receive and our mod- 
ern system of feudalism. Why is it that a thousand workers 21 
years and over out of 3,700 earn less than $2 a week in the cotton 
mills? It is because a thousand children under 14 can earn just 
as much. When the child can do the man's job or the woman's 
job, the man or woman must lose the job or take the wages that are 
paid the child. There is no escape from that conclusion. If there 
is anything the matter with the logic of the argument, I should 
like to have it pointed out. 

When 17,517, more than half the employes whose wages were 
reported, earn less than $5.00 a week, I know they earn that small 
sum because out of the 17,517, there are 7,825 children under 16 
who earn the same wages. In any child-employing industry the 
wages of the adult are measured by the wages of the child., 

The children are offered wages that are high for a child and 
the children are employed, 40,000 of them in the cotton mill in- 
dustry according to the manufacturers' own figures in 1909, as 
reported by the Census Bureau. The labor unions have known for 
a long time that child labor depresses wages. They are charged with 
selfishness in their advocacy of child labor reform. Even if that be 
true, I had rather see a man selfishly on the right side of a humane 
question than selfishly on the wrong side of it. I pay the cotton 
manufacturer the compliment of supposing that he is as intelligent 
as the trade unionist. Then he knows that child labor depresses 
wages and he holds on to the children whom he employs for a double 




6 Child Wages in Cotton Mills 

I 
purpose. First, because in the cotton mill, the child can do the 

work required. It is even claimed that the child can do it better than 
the adult, the work of spinning in particular. Then because he can 
get the children at children's wages, he naturally believes in equal 
pay for equal work, and the employment of children keeps down the 
wage-scale for all his employes.^ The children are members of the 
family. The family requirtfs a certain amount of wages to live 
at all. The wages for the support of life can be obtained by the em- 
ployment of several members of the family and large families of 
adult workers are rare. Therefore let the children work or let the 
family try starving for a while. So the cotton mill workers go 
to work as children. They get married as children. They become 
parents of other children while they are children themselves. Their 
illiteracy ranges from 44 per cent, in Georgia to 48 and 50 per 
cent, in the two Carolinas — children 10 to 14 years of age. Often 
they forget the little they have learned, and, as a South Carolina 
manufacturer recently confessed to me, there are practically no 
mill children over 12 in school. They have been condemned for life, 
with few exceptions, to an unskilled trade, in which there is not 
hope for advancement for 1 per cent, of the workers, while for 
99 per cent, the maximum of efficiency is reached before manhood 
or womanhood is reached. 

Feudalism. 

Meantime, while the employes have become thus helpless the 
employers have grown more powerful. Forbidding their employes 
to organize in labor unions, the manufacturers are themselves or- 
ganized in State and National Associations. And as the employes 
keep poor the employer grows rich and becomes independent enough 
to run his mill regardless of a temporary shut-down. Since the em- 
ployer owns the house in which the operative lives he is landlord 
as well as employer. The only freedom yet retained by these help- 
less people is the liberty of changing their feudal lords, and there 
has been such bitter complaint of the migratory character of the 
cotton mill workers that I look to see some baronial edict put forth 
that no family will be employed at one mill that moves from another 
without the employer's consent. As for other employment, the 
operatives have often told me that after a few years or even months 
in the confinement and monotony of mill work they were unfitted for 



Child Wages in Cotton Mills 7 

work on the farms from which they had come, requiring the ex- 
ercise of muscle and brawn. 

I have spoken at this conference my individual views, for which 
I alone am responsible, on the tariff question as related to child 
labor. [~K± a meetmg~on February~i3, last71iTT!rIaTlotte7-N7--Gr r 4he- 
Hard Yarn Spinners Association passed the following resolutions: 
"We are opposed to any material reduction in the present tariff that 
would place us in competition with the mills of Europe employing 
pauper labor." The same manufacturers passed resolutions against 
any advance in the protection of the working children. Now, dis- 
regarding the fact that with a tariff that is practically prohibitive 
on cotton goods the American consumer must pay a price for those 
goods made artificially high, the fact stands out tha t no part of 
that adde d_ j>rofit finds its way into the pay-envelope. (If the report 
of the tariff board is to be believed, the American cotton manu- 
facturer, without any protection, has the advantage now against his 
English and German competitors. But the point I have often made 
is one which was recently endorsed by Miss Ida M. Tarbell in a 
personal letter, namely, that to make the employer more powerful 
through excessive profits is simply to make the employe more de- 
pendent. If the Southern manufacturer were obliged to accept the 
dividends that content his English or German rival, then there would 
be less of a sense of power over his employes. A few years ago, 
there was an attempt in a certain Southern mill district to organize 
the employes into a labor union. Some progress was made and 
the mills simply shut down and remained in masterly inactivity until 
the employes were scattered and the effort to organize them was 
given up. At the last meeting of the Virginia legislature the cotton 
mill men opposed a very slight advance in the child labor law and a 
manufacturer from Danville took a solid hour to tell of his benevo- 
lence and philanthropy, so far as his beloved employes were con- 
cerned, while I held in my hand a letter with the names of several 
girls in his mill who had been discharged because they had tried 
to form a union. 

A book has recently been published with the help of cotton 
manufacturers defending child labor in the cotton mills. I do not 
regard it as an authority on any phase of the problem, but as one 
chapter of the book is devoted to the Pelzer Mill, and it seems to 
have been so pleasing to the manufacturer, who is called "the King 



8 Child Wages in Cotton Mills 

of Pelzer," that he bought 140 copies of it to present to the mem- 
bers of the South Carolina Legislature, I may perhaps quote a 
paragraph as either history, or fiction, which the manufacturer 
seems to have approved and enjoyed. 

Says the author: "I was told a story about these people that 
not only aptly illustrates their spirit of independence (sic), but also 
the tyranny of the King of Pelzer. The labor unions of the North 
had determined to organize the down-trodden mill operatives of the 
South, and they sent one of their delegates to Pelzer. . . . But 
he had scarcely arrived in the place, when his plans and movements 
were reported to the King. The King, seated at his office desk, 
listened to the report, and then quietly looking up at the clock said: 
'The next train leaves at eleven; have the constable put him on 
that train.' " And the veracious historian comments with approval : 
"The order was obeyed as effectively as though it had been a royal 
or presidential decree with a Swiss Guard or a company of Mexican 
Rurales to enforce it." This is treated as a great joke. But the 
point is, that the man was probably a trespasser if he set foot in 
that village of more than a thousand souls, and the constable, though 
presumably an officer of the state, was only carrying out, in rather 
summary fashion, the law against trespass on one's private estate. 

One of our agents, a lovable and gentle Christian minister, 
went to a cotton mill in Georgia, two miles from the railroad. He 
engaged a room at the hotel. Going first to the school he took 
some photographs of the children. Then the president of the mill 
learned of his presence (he had told his name and his errand), and 
ordered him not to trespass further, saying that the school as well 
as the mill, and even the streets of the mill were his property. Fur- 
ther investigation was impossible, and the minister then found that 
his room at the hotel was forbidden him, he was warned that it 
would be unsafe for him to remain in the village that night, and 
he had to return to the railroad station. 

A mill just on the outskirts of Atlanta then, within the cor- 
porate limits now, after I had made some rather searching investi- 
gations and published the results, put up signs in the streets, for- 
bidding anyone to enter the mill community without permission. 
This position, however, was too absurd to be maintained long. An- 
other of our agents wrote a little sketch once entitled, "A Little 
Kingdom in Cotton-Land." He described a North Carolina cotton 



Child Wages in Cotton Mills Q 

mill town where the whole mill community stood in awe of the 
superintendent, who was also magistrate and exercised all the func- 
tions of landlord, employer, and officer of the law. 

I remember seeing a sign on the fence of a New England mill 
in Georgia, to the effect that if a boy were found with an air-rifle, 
the family must leave the mill as soon as the lease on their house 
expired, and the houses of the operatives were leased for a term of 
two weeks. It may have been a good thing to discourage the air- 
rifle and even to hold the parents responsible for the child's mis- 
doings, but one would rather see that done by the law and the 
officers of the law than by the employer and landlord. —=7 

Perhaps the most pitiful example of this sort of feudalism 
is the petitions which are brought to the Legislature from the 
operatives against the enactment of laws for their own benefit. I 
have seen these petitions, some of them signed by one hand, as if 
they were simply copied from the pay-roll. But others are signed by 
those of the operatives who can read and write, while the majority 
make their mark. They petition the Legislature not to shorten the 
hours, not to prevent night work, not to abolish the child labor which 
keeps their wages down, not to authorize inspectors who will see 
that their limbs and lives are guarded from accident, or their build- 
ings from unescapable flames. 

Two years ago in Georgia we attempted to change the limit of 
66 hours a week, 12 a day, to a 10-hour day for children. The 
Legislature began to receive petitions from the mill operatives pro- 
testing against any shortening of the hours. Then the manufacturers 
thought they had better compromise on a 60-hour week and the 
11-hour day, and thereafter the operatives petitioned for a 60-hour 
week, but sought to be saved from the dire distress of working less 
than 60 hours a week. On the other hand, the only organized 
mill I know in the South recently petitioned a legislature for a nine- 
hour day for women and an eight-hour day for children. 

The same feudalism existed in New England cotton mills not 
many years since. Eight and a half years ago I took a trip through 
the New England mill cities. We learned that at Lowell any opera- 
tive who was found even attending a labor union meeting was dis- 
charged. Last fall, eight years afterward, I went to Lowell again. 
I found that the Industrial Workers of the World, generally styled 
the I. W. W., had called a strike at one mill, because, having 



io Child Wages in Cotton Mills 

about 90 per cent, of the operatives members of that organization, 
they insisted that the mill should discharge those who would not 
join them. And now the New England mills are falling over them- 
selves in the effort to get the American Federation of Labor to 
organize them and thus deliver them from the I. W. W. 

This feudalism is sometimes called a benevolent feudalism, be- 
cause it occasionally builds, out of the surplus made by the labor 
at low wages of the workers, schools, hospitals, libraries and so 
forth. But there is no benevolent feudalism. The expression is a 
contradiction in terms. The best benevolence would be to increase 
the pay-roll, so that the employes might do some of these things 
for themselves. 

Yet no people of this stock has ever remained long in bondage. 
It is American stock, with the English and Scotch instincts against 
every form of tyranny. In South Carolina the manufacturers have 
lost the political control of their employes. In State elections the 
employers vote one way and the employes the other and whatever 
else we may say about this, the employes have recently been on 
the winning side. The State should and will incorporate the mill 
towns and the people will begin to learn the first principles of local 
self-government and will again be free men. Then they will organ- 
ize sooner or later, if not in the regular labor unions then in the 
irregular. They will slowly learn that their interests lie on the side 
of the reform of conditions of labor for children and women. They 
come of the stock that fought at Kings Mountain and at New 
Orleans, at Gettysburg and Chickamauga. There is hardly a child 
of the cotton mills in the South who cannot claim descent from 
some soldier of the wars of the Republic. They will not always 
remain helpless. Compulsory school attendance laws will soon 
begin to influence the education of the next generation, at least, 
and when they learn their rights, they are of the breed that has 
always dared maintain them, and they will demand more hours for 
rest and recreation, and a fairer share of the profits of industry. 

The Danger. 

Nor can a democracy encourage a feudalism within itself save 
to its everlasting hurt. In a democracy the people all rule. Also, 
the people are ruled. And when it comes to the people's ruling us 



Child Wages in Cotton Mills n 

by their votes, electing our governors and presidents, initiating and 
vetoing legislation, taxing our incomes, we grow mightily concerned 
over the intelligence and independence of the electorate. We do 
not like to trust our interests now and the lives and fortunes of our 
children to a mass of voters who have been deprived of all oppor- 
tunity for an education, who have been held in feudalistic bondage, 
who have been embittered by the robbery of their childhood, who 
are the material for the agitator, and the prey of the demagogue. 
Patriotism is partly an enlightened instinct of self-preservation, and 
patriotism demands that we abolish the system under which large 
and continually increasing masses of our people are led into a bond- 
age from which there may be no escape, save by way of a social 
revolution. 

Abolish child labor and the child can go to school. We shall 
never have compulsory education in the cotton manufacturing states 
of the South until we abolish child labor first. Then the wage- 
scale will rise to the point where a man or woman can support the 
family, When educated and intelligent workers can make their own 
terms as to hours and wages and the conditions of labor. This is 
not theory, but history. In England, after a century of struggle, 
these things have happened in the cotton mill industry, and the 
industry itself stands on a high plane with the others. There is 
no reason under heaven, save that of unenlightened greed, why the 
same industry in the South should not be put upon a better basis 
than anywhere else in the world, so that it shall become one of 
which we may all be proud, rather than one whose profits smell of 
blood. 



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CHILD LABOR BULLETIN and other publications of 
the Committee and are thus kept in touch with the child labor 
movement throughout the country. Remittances may be sent to 
V. Everit Macy, Treasurer, 105 East 2 2d St., New York City.